April 2001

Wednesday 11th April
A drama of a different sort, for a change. I was in Fatoush (there’s a surprise, I hear everyone cry) and suddenly everyone got up and rushed outside. Two cars had collided at the traffic lights just up the street. The BMW was completely smashed up at the front, the other car seemed not to be so damaged but there was a guy sprawled across the front seats. Despite the fact that I was not first on the scene no one was checking to see if he had been badly hurt or not.

Unfortunately my emergency training doesn’t extend to how to talk to accident victims in anything other than English, so me asking him his name and if he could talk to me was a little pointless. I got one of the guys from Fatoush to translate. The first driver was Jewish, the other was Palestinian. A very, very upset one at that.

I do not know if the Jew thought that he was going to get lynched but he did look petrified. Three men were holding the other chap back but he managed to break free and launched himself at the car, jumped on to the bonnet and attempted to kick the windscreen in. An ambulance appeared and this is when I got really annoyed.

I was trying to get people to stand away from the car to try and alleviate the fear the driver was suffering, which was only minimally successful. I assumed that the medics would come and attend to him. They sat in the ambulance. For five minutes they stayed there, whilst this poor guy was beginning to get more and more agitated. Shouting in English was not going to make a blind bit of difference so there was little I could do. A huge throng of people had appeared and were just standing around watching the proceedings but apart from the earlier outburst there was no tension or trouble.
The medics eventually came out, put a neck collar on the first guy and went back in to the ambulance. At this point I was extremely bored by the whole thing so went back to Fatoush, trying to persuade others to come too but that didn’t work quite so well either. I sat in a deserted bar, with one other person, for about ten minutes before everyone else appeared again. Of course, the conversation then revolved around the accident, which did make a change from politics I must say, but it was rather tiresome all the same.

Easter weekend in the Holy Land. No doubt there will be plenty of acts of violence perpetrated by those who are supposed to live by the word and laws of God. I, for my part, will be taking part in a demonstration that is walking through the Bethlehem checkpoint. I have to get to Bethlehem in advance for a preparatory meeting on Friday afternoon. Then I get to have a night out in Bethlehem.

Wednesday 18th April
Partied in the West Bank on Friday night. Memories is a nightclub in Bethlehem. It is right next door to Rachel’s tomb so has been shut on and off for quite a lot of the time since the Intifada started. (There are often gunfights outside.) Luckily for us it was open tonight, the gunmen and snipers had taken the night off.

Actually, that is not quite accurate, the IDF snipers are there 24 hours a day. When I walked through on my own during the day I noticed how eerily quiet it was, with no one in sight. Looking around I could see where the sniper positions are located in the nearby buildings and was keenly aware that they were watching my every step.

There was quite a group of us: shabab from the Rapprochement Centre in Beit Sahour (where we had spent the afternoon discussing tactics for Saturday’s protest; what to do if they shoot, that sort of thing) and the international contingent, consisting of volunteers etc. Monica has known the guys from Rapprochement for years so we were lucky enough to get beds for the night, courtesy of George.

Everyone is called George in Beit Sahour so we have to distinguish them by their surnames, which can also become rather difficult when they are cousins!

It was so nice to dance, to forget the claustrophic atmosphere of occupation, violence and soldiers. There was both Arabic and Western music played. Everyone got up to dance to YMCA and Staying Alive which was fantastically amusing. And considering where we were, rather surreal. But even under occupation one has to let one’s hair down once in a while. Everyone certainly enjoyed themselves.

A mild hangover: tequila and rum shots, bad idea. We walked up to the Rapprochement Centre and watched the crowds gather for the “coming of the light”, part of Holy Saturday’s Easter celebrations. It was agreed that we would wait until after the procession before leaving to go to the checkpoint. We all went up to greet the light and walk back to the church again. We joked about whether the light would be allowed in as it probably didn’t have a permit. Although the whole of the town was there, there were no pilgrims, as is usual for such a religious occasion. There are no tourists in the West Bank anymore. Just shelled houses, homeless families and bereaved parents.

We set off to the checkpoint. Our intention was to walk through in to Israel and meet with a group of Israeli peace activists the other side, then for all of us to walk back again in to Palestine. Sounds simple, huh? A large part of our group was made up of international activists. A party of 30 or so Italians had come over especially for this, organised and supported by their MEP, Luisa Morgantini.

One reason it is hard for Palestinians to take part is if they are arrested they will be incarcerated in a jail that is different to the one that I for example would be taken to. If arrested, I will usually be released within a few hours, but a Palestinian would be lucky to see the outside for days, months, whatever. They are held without charge for up to six months. Then when the six months is over, they are still held.

As soon as we approached the checkpoint road we saw our welcoming committee. A line of soldiers backed up with jeeps. We came up to them and explained (as if they didn’t know why we were there!) that we all wished to proceed through to the checkpoint. No, no, no. frantic phone calls. Deliberation. We were allowed to walk a little further up the road. The soldiers reassembled in their line and we squared up to them. Lots of linked arms and singing. They would not allow us to proceed so plan B came in to effect. Pushing.

We all started to walk forward, gently pushing the soldiers back. They were absolutely baffled. They pushed back and so we pushed harder. This went on for a while until the two ends managed to break through. I was in the middle section where they seemed to be fairly tough so we just stopped and walked around them. Their faces were a picture!

The soldiers ran up the road ahead of us to regroup and form a line again, but we were wise. When confronted by soldiers get as close as possible to them. They cannot shoot, throw stun grenades or tear gas us if we are literally standing on top of them. So we were back to square two again, but now we felt as if we had the upper hand and we were pushing much harder.

The Israeli group were in contact with us by phone and they had been kept at the first part of the Jerusalem side. They’d then been allowed to proceed, but not to come as far as where we were. Still, we pushed and pushed and when we saw the others approaching, we pushed that little bit more. Fortunately we were filmed and photographed constantly by international media, so we felt safe.

There were a couple of moments when the tension rose to a point where it could have gone either way but luckily the demo was well prepared for such events so that those who were getting heated were swiftly pulled out and calmed down.

Then, after considerable argy bargy, we broke through again and we all rushed to meet the other group, amid much shouting and cheering. We had also made bus tickets to give to the soldiers telling them to go home and live in peace. They looked so confused by the whole thing!

A few speeches were made and then it was time to go. Quite an incredible event really. The first demonstration I’d been to where there were no injuries or deaths. Unfortunately we do not seem to have got a great deal of press coverage due to the other events of the day but it is a start, and as we left we told the soldiers were told that we would be back and that next time we were not going to stop but would continue until we reached Jerusalem.

I spent Easter Sunday lunch as the guest of a family whose house had been almost destroyed by Israeli shelling in Beit Jala. I was with David and we had been walking around, looking at the damage in Beit Jala. They invited us in and showed us the remains of home for five families. It was heartbreaking and I confess to shedding a tear when I scrambled around the upstairs.

One side of the house was missing but an upstairs door was still standing in a very forlorn manner. Either side, where the walls ought to have been, I could see the settlement of Gilo in the distance. That was where the shells came from. There was a twisted mass of metal, which was a bathtub, and some burnt clothing, children’s clothing, amongst the rubble. The only habitable part of the house was the veranda at the front, where they were preparing an Easter BBQ. They insisted that we stayed, and we were fed and watered until I could hardly move.

I asked them what they were now doing: the family had been split up and where in five separate apartments, only one of them had a job as they all worked at the casino, which has been closed down. The younger ones want to leave.

At this rate Israel will get its wish: either they will be killed or imprisoned, or their lives will become so intolerably miserable that they will do anything to get out. They are forced from their homes and their families because they have nothing to stay there for, nothing to look forward to, no future to dream of. They of course are the “luckier” ones as they have had an education and can speak more than one language. Many are not so “lucky.”

PS: For the last two nights, Beit Sahour, Beit Jala and Bethlehem have been shelled.

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